The 19-year-old boy could not believe his first day of college. Strangers were slapping him on the back and giving him kisses like they knew him. It was surreal. But as he was to learn, the truth was even more strange, and sinister, than he could have imagined.
Of all of the debates that seem to have been going on forever, “nature vs. nurture” has been one of the most controversial. Nature, in this instance, refers to what we are born with – our genetic makeup and other parts of our biology. Nurture, on the other hand, is our environment. It concerns where and how we are raised. Which one is a bigger part of determining who we become?
The quest to determine whether genetics or upbringing make us what we are has resulted in a great deal of research. Because of their identical genes, twins are popular subjects for this research. In fact, there have been at least 2,748 twin studies done between the years of 1958 and 2012.
Twin studies are usually carried out on siblings who are brought up together, since they are easiest to find. But this can be seen as a limitation, because both hereditary and environmental factors are shared – and we still don’t know just how much power environmental factors have. For this reason many researchers have looked for identical siblings raised separately. And not all of their research could be called ethical.
In 1961, a set of triplets born in New York were adopted out to three different families. The adoptions were overseen by the Louise Wise Agency, who were working with the Child Development Center, now part of the Jewish Board for Family and Children’s Services. Unbeknown to the parents involved, their children were to be participants in a secret nature vs. nurture study.
At the time, the Child Development Center was run by psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer. An Austrian immigrant, Neubauer was well respected in his field of child psychology. He was among the first scientists to question exposing children to television violence, and his advice to parents was also often quoted in publications like the New York Times.
What people didn’t know about Neubauer was that he was conducting covert research on sets of twins and triplets separated in infancy. The children were given to parents of different income levels and backgrounds. These families had no idea that their adopted kids had one or more identical siblings.
The parents had been told that their adopted children were taking part in a developmental study. They were visited often by researchers. Everything the kids did was examined or even filmed. The adoptees and their families were interviewed and reports were made back to Neubauer.
Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman might have gone through life without knowing they were triplets, were it not for a fateful coincidence. On his first day at New York’s Sullivan Community College, Shafran was greeted by strangers as though he were a long lost friend. It turned out, he had been mistaken for his brother Galland.
Galland happened to have attended the same college the year before. His former roommate, Michael Domnitz, was stunned when he first encountered Shafran. “As soon as this guy turned around, I was actually shaking,” Domnitz said in a documentary about the triplets, Three Identical Strangers. “The colour from my face dropped because I knew it was [Galland’s] double.”
After checking Shafran’s date of birth and asking if he was adopted, Domnitz knew that the new student and Galland were twins. Their chance reunion garnered a lot of publicity. The third brother, Kellman, connected with them later, after seeing his brothers’ story in the news.
Despite growing up in very different circumstances, the identical triplets felt a deep bond with each other. They discovered they had much in common, but also many differences. Their unusual story made them celebrities. In 1985 the brothers even appeared in a movie with Madonna, Desperately Seeking Susan. But there was a dark side to the tale.
The brothers and their families only discovered later that they had been involved in a secret experiment, and that the boys’ separation and ignorance about their identical siblings was for research purposes. They had been lied to by the Louise Wise Agency, who told them they were split up only so that more families could adopt babies.
Understandably, the brothers and their adopted families were enraged by the revelations. Shafran likened the experiment to those conducted by the Nazis. Suddenly, they understood why the three siblings had psychological issues, dating back to when they were just babies. For one of the triplets, these issues would be resolved in a very tragic way.
After finding each other, the triplets moved in together and opened their own New York restaurant, called Triplets. But disagreements saw Shafran leave to study law. Sadly, at the age of 33, Galland committed suicide, possibly due to an inherited mental illness the brothers weren’t told about – and possibly related to the issues they’ve all had since they were babies. Kellman then closed the restaurant to work in insurance.
The triplets’ story has made headlines again recently, because of Three Identical Strangers, a documentary made by Timothy Wardle. Screened at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, it won the special jury prize for storytelling. The film points the finger squarely at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services for allowing the controversial study to take place.
Louise Wise closed down in 2004 and Neubauer died in 2008, but Shafran and Kellman believe the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services should take responsibility for what was done to them. “It was cruel; it was wrong,” Kellman told the Washington Post at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018.
The triplets are the only participants in Neubauer’s study to have been identified so far. “I think the first thing [the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services] should have done once they became aware of this movie,” Shafran told the The Washington Post, “is reunite any twins still surviving and advise those who’ve been deceased, just so they can know who they are.”
The complete results of Neubauer’s research have never been released. Although some sections were made public, they were too heavily redacted to be of much use. “It would help us to know what came out of it,” Kellman said. “It would help us if we knew the study may have even done some good.”
As for how Neubauer felt about his study before his death, “he still felt he had done the right thing,” author Nancy Segal told The Times in February 2018. Segal has a book coming out on the triplets. The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services has issued a statement to The Washington Post saying it does not endorse the study. “We hope that the film encourages others to come forward,” they said.